by James P. Wind

A large portion of American congregations get their pastors from seminaries. To be sure, these theological schools are not the only route into ordained congregational ministry and they are not the solitary shapers of their graduates. Some congregations train their own leaders and our country has always had room for the entrepreneurial pastor who starts a congregation with a sense of personal call and little else. But the main path into pastoral ministry—especially for those who wish to serve Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Historic Black, and Jewish congregations—has run through the seminary.

Although congregational members are served by people who are powerfully shaped by these institutions, most congregational members spend little time on a seminary campus. While they will be quick to notice if a pastor has poor preaching skills, lacks administrative ability, or provides weak pastoral care—and may blame the seminary for doing an inadequate job of preparing their pastor—the schools that shape their clergy often remain distant, mysterious places.

Perhaps congregational members are like American citizens who prefer not to know how their legislation is made, choosing to leave what happens in seminary to denominational leaders and members of the clergy guild. Or perhaps they have never been given a good reason to take a look inside them.

There are 270 member schools within the Association of Theological Schools and they are spread across the range of American denominations. Many of them are small institutions trying to bear their precious traditions into a world of constant change, churning values, and thinner ties to faith communities. Many of these schools face decisions about their very survival and future mission. They are all trying to do more with less. And they play a very large role in shaping the people who will fill our pulpits, lead our congregations, and equip people for ministry beyond our congregational walls.

Last year, Ellie Roscher pulled the curtain back on these mysterious places by editing Keeping the Faith in Seminary (Minneapolis, Avenida Books), a collection of essays that helps us hear firsthand testimony from the latest cohort of American seminarians. In their individual chapters, 17 recent graduates give us powerful glimpses into what this rising generation of clergy is learning. (Full disclosure: one of those authors is my daughter, Rachel Wind; another is her husband, Matt Holmes.)

Although not a scientifically controlled random sample, the authors come from a variety of seminaries like Fuller, Luther, Columbia, and Harvard. If we listen to them as they find their voices and tell their stories, we can learn a lot about what is happening in seminaries and what kinds of leaders are on their way to our congregations.

Their stories do not focus primarily on the academic, doctrinal, or technical subjects that compete for time and attention in seminary classrooms. Instead the authors focus on the life of the seminarian, on the power of the seminary culture and environment.

One story tells of the burden of being a “pipeliner,” someone who seemed routed for parish ministry from birth and who lived within an environment full of expectations and norms about ministry in a congregation. Another story tells of a student who came to the seminary from a largely unchurched background, who became a congregational member only six weeks before entering seminary. The first seminarian struggled with the tension between the strong pressures of an external call—expressed by family and the church pipeline—and her own internal call, which pulled in directions other than parish ministry. The second student was trying to move from the pastel world of modern suburban life to the stained glass world of the church, with its foreign language and culture.

Another wrote of being a cradle Catholic studying in a seminary of cradle Lutherans. This student concluded that her “entire experience was a lesson in living a particular faith commitment in a community of difference.” A recurring theme throughout these essays is that these students experienced what it was like to be an outsider in a powerful culture. Some learned from this experience of alienation, calling it liminality, and used the seminary experience as a place to discover how easily religious communities can seek to be hospitable and yet not be experienced that way. Others simply carry the scars.

More than one wrote about the difficult journey through the candidacy process, describing the experience as one in which they felt judged by outsiders and not known or valued as persons. Looking back on the process, one student names some lessons: “I am thankful for the glimpses of grace I had. The people who stood up for me, went to bat for me, and encouraged me along the way were God’s very presence in my life.” A powerful learning moment came when a professor hosted a dinner party for six students who had failed one or more of the candidacy exams. The professor had invited a special guest, a young professor with a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School, who earlier had flunked one of the exams.

What do we make of these insider accounts? While they do not present us with the whole story of seminary life today, they do give us examples of the kinds of things that today’s seminarians are working on—which are often the deep issues in the daily lives of our congregations and workplaces. They reveal the deep vocational searching that is taking place on these campuses. They also show us how seminaries are places where global cultures and changing sexual mores are being negotiated. Our seminaries are places where people experience alienation and community, where they learn about both hospitality and exclusion, where students learn how church institutions work, and where they see how the sacred treasures of their faith traditions hold up against the mundane realities of financial scarcity and institutional imperfection. Taken as a whole, these short essays reveal a special set of places that have been set aside by faith communities to be environments where one learns about ministry in a stunning variety of ways.

These seminaries are struggling with many challenges today. They would be helped if our congregations knew better what was going on inside them. Our congregations would be helped if they were as intentional as the seminaries about creating environments that nurture the vocations of their members in these turbulent times.

Congregations, 2013-03-22
2013 Issue 1, Number 1